Extract from the Mail and Gaurdian
Some of the Nordic countries are commonly singled out as examples of nations that provide free tertiary education.
In Finland and Sweden it is enshrined in their Constitutions. But these are developed nations, economically prosperous, with some of the highest levels of taxation on income (up to 57%) in the world.
But some of South Africa’s peer developing nations do provide free, or almost free, university education. These include Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Turkey.
In its submission to the fees commission, Equal Education, a community and member-based organisation, singles out Brazil as an example of free education worth studying.
The Brazilian government wholly funds its public universities — the federal universities — which are more prestigious than the private for-profit universities.
The University of Sao Paulo ranks in the top 300 universities in the world (higher than Stellenbosch University), according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017 list.
The Brazilian government also runs the Programa Universidade para Todos (Prouni) — the University for All programme — which offers full or partial private university scholarships to students whose family income is less than 880 real (R3 900) a month.
Since 2007, the Fundo de Financiamento ao Estudante do Ensino Superior allows students with a higher family income to receive low-interest loans to cover private university tuition.
“Data shows that there is a direct correlation between funding education and decreasing inequality in Brazil, as well as economic growth,” Equal Education said in its submission. But it also acknowledged there is inequality in Brazilian higher education, which is rooted in the failures of the basic education system, similar to South Africa’s case.
Children from wealthy families are sent to superior private primary and secondary schools and so are better prepared for the college entry exams and university-level work.
A larger proportion of these students are admitted into the federal universities and those with inferior schooling are left behind.
To remedy this, the Brazilian government has directed universities to set aside a minimum of 50% of its positions for students coming from public schools — “a complicated form of affirmative action that utilises race and class as proxies for inclusion”, Equal Education said.
Nico Cloete, the director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, said Brazil offers free higher education in the public universities but the government’s investment is not that high — about 1% of gross domestic product (South Africa’s is relatively low at 0.71%). This is because “these institutions enrol less than 25% of students, with the remaining 75% enrolled in mostly low-quality, nonresearch private universities,” he said.
Equal Education said funds need to be injected into the South Africa National Students Financial Aid Scheme, “or a new institution similar to Prouni should be created to provide bursaries for low-income students, not based solely on meritocracy”.